“Check it out on the internet,” or “Google it!” How often have you given that advice to someone with a health complaint? If it is a friend who is uncomfortable with uncertainty, looking at lists of symptoms online might actually make matters worse. A new phenomenon, cyberchondria, or unfounded worry about symptoms as the result of searching online, can affect people with health anxiety, resulting in more office visits and higher health care costs.
Dr. Thomas Fergus, of the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, published the results of his study on health anxiety and internet searches in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. His findings may lead to a better way to treat those with health anxiety and lower the overall cost of health care.
Cyberchondria: The Research Design
MTurk, an online company that pays for small internet jobs, recruited 512 respondents without any type of diagnosis for the study. The respondents were disproportionately white, with a mean age of 33.4 years, somewhat more likely to be female and unmarried. In his article, Dr. Fergus notes that MTurk respondents are “more demographically diverse than either standard Internet samples or American undergraduate samples.”
Survey respondents answered questions to determine how they felt about uncertainty, how anxious they were about their health, and how often they searched online for answers to health questions.
In an exclusive interview with Decoded Science, Dr. Fergus explained the questions came from commonly used self-report research tools: “The Intolerance of Uncertainty Scale was used to assess the degree to which individuals dislike uncertainty and the Short Health Anxiety Inventory was used to assess the severity of respondents’ health anxiety.”
The study measured questions about uncertainty on a five point scale and included items like, “I always want to know what the future has in store for me.’’ Rating statements such as “I spend most of my time worrying about my health” measured anxiety.
The study measured the frequency of searching for health related information with ratings on a seven point scale ranging from “never” to “several times a day.”
Internet Searches and Uncertainty
Intolerance of uncertainty (IU) turned out to be a key factor in both anxiety and frequency of Internet searches. Dr. Baylor writes that the “relationship between the frequency of searching for medical information on the Internet and health anxiety grew increasingly stronger as IU increased.” Those less comfortable with uncertainty demonstrated a greater likelihood of searching the Internet and report greater anxiety regarding health issues.
Dr. Fergus states, “[r]esearchers have developed psychological interventions to increase tolerance for uncertainty. However, increasing tolerance for uncertainty is not commonly a direct focus of standard health anxiety psychological interventions. It is possible that psychological interventions that have been developed to increase tolerance for uncertainty might be useful in reducing health anxiety as well.”
While some individuals may find solace in visiting a physician and allaying their health-related fears, Dr. Fergus explained to Decoded Science, “if individuals find themselves continually preoccupied with health concerns even after attempts for reassurance about their health (e.g., from a medical doctor), seeking assistance from other professionals (e.g., psychologists practicing cognitive-behavioral therapy) can be effective in reducing health anxiety. In those cases, this research could increase attention to health anxiety and ultimately help reduce healthcare costs.”
Medical Costs and Online Symptoms
Reducing unnecessary visits to physicians and forgoing superfluous tests frees up health care dollars, physician’s schedules, and, ultimately, benefits everyone. Maybe we should all think twice about telling some of our more anxious friends and family to just “Google it.”
Fergus, T. Cyberchondria and Intolerance of Uncertainty: Examining When Individuals Experience Health Anxiety in Response to Internet Searches for Medical Information. (2013). Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. Accessed November 13, 2012
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